I ultimately decided to delete this prologue from the final version of The Ghost in Exile because I decided that the novel worked better started at a later point in the story. Still, I rather like it, so I'm posted in here to get you in the mood for the release of The Ghost in Exile on November 25. Tell me what you think of the prologue in the comments below.
He heard voices coming from the open doorway ahead. "And the bastard's army?" Duke Argblutal asked. The Ghost didn’t know how the usurper had found out that The Ghost, and not the king, fathered the crown princess, but such accusations would die with him.
"It's larger than we believed, at least two thousand strong,” a second voice answered. “Some of them are untrained peasants, but we are still outnumbered nearly five to one. The people throng into the street to join her."
"How can they want a bastard on the throne?" The duke's voice dripped with venom.
The Ghost took two more strides, threw a knife, and the duke's underling fell face down into the room. He stepped over the body and hissed, "Because she's far more fit to rule than you.”
"Guards!" the duke yelled.
The Ghost laughed. "There are no guards to hear you. I've been most thorough."
Argblutal grabbed his sword. The walls of his chamber were covered with the heads of beasts that he’d no doubt severed with that sword, including a panther, which was the symbol of his house. "Do you honestly think you're my match?" Argblutal sneered.
"Easily." The Ghost drew his sword. He could have killed the duke with a throwing knife. But that would have been too quick. The monster had to be made to feel all the pain he'd caused Samantha. That wasn't possible, though. It took a heart to suffer as she had. The Ghost lunged in for a quick attack. Argblutal parried, but The Ghost's sword made a shallow slice across the duke's upper arm. Blood began to trickle from the wound.
"You think the people will bow the knee before a bastard?" Argblutal tried to taunt him, but The Ghost didn't answer. Words were wasted breath. Relentlessly, he battered Argblutal back toward the wall. Blood sprang from wounds on the duke's legs and arms. The Ghost was vaguely aware the duke had scored a few small hits of his own. But The Ghost was no longer mortal. He didn't feel pain.
Argblutal was weakening, and he again yelled for assistance. His parries became wilder and clumsier, and The Ghost saw his opening. He swung his sword toward the duke's stomach, slicing open his midsection and spilling his entrails. The duke clutched at his guts and dropped to his knees. The Ghost bent down beside him.
"Who are you?" Argblutal hissed.
The Ghost pulled the wax off his face.
"Darhour, is it?" Argblutal sputtered. But The Ghost was Darhour no longer. He’d left that identity behind when he broke his vow never to kill again. "Do you really think they will bend the knee to the daughter of a stable groom?"
"You'll never know if they do or not." The Ghost looked at the duke's stomach wound. "You could take three days to die of such wounds. Pity, I can't spare the time to watch." He sheathed his sword and drew a knife. "I've heard you remove the manhood of those who disappoint you."
Argblutal’s scream as The Ghost castrated him in no way soothed the heart that had listened to his daughter sob. The duke had to be made to feel more pain. The Ghost wanted to dismember him piece by piece. Kill him as he’d killed the man who gave him the scars that marred his face and body. But he hadn’t the time. His daughter’s army was at the gates. Even now, he could hear her voice echoing through the palace grounds, asking the duke’s men to surrender. But they never would while Argblutal lived.
The Ghost drew his sword and cut off the usurper’s head. A pike rested nearby. The Ghost placed the duke’s head on it. Then he opened the doors to the palace balcony and displayed the head above the railing.
He watched from a side window until the duke’s men surrendered, and Samantha with the sorcerer and her army rode through the palace gates. She was safe now, his job complete.
He looked down at his blood-soaked clothing, a testimony to how thoroughly he’d broken his vow to the goddess. He told himself he should feel something, but he felt nothing—not regret, not sorrow, not even vindication. His soul was now completely dark. He was truly a monster; as he looked through the window at the auburn hair of his daughter shining in the sunlight, he knew this was the last look he could allow himself of her. If he stayed, he would blacken her soul. Besides, if Argblutal had discovered the connection between them, someone else could as well. He had to get away, far from Korthlundia where his daughter would reign. Only one place in the world could a killer like him be at home—Saloyna, the land that had turned a simple stable groom into an assassin whose reputation spanned the world.
“Goodbye, Samantha,” he whispered. “Please forgive me, my daughter.” Just what he was asking forgiveness for, he didn’t know. For leaving? No, he had no choice. For fathering her? How could he regret what she had become? For her finding out about the bond between them? Yes, that he regretted and wished there had been some way to keep her ignorant. He took one last look at her, holding hands with the sorcerer, and slipped back to his own quarters.
He took off his clothes, threw them in a corner, and washed the blood from his body. He bound the shallow wounds the duke had given him and changed into the livery of a palace servant. With wax and makeup he disguised his facial scars. He packed quickly—a couple of changes of clothes, the makeup for his disguises, his money bag. The bag contained enough to get him to Saloyna, more than enough.
He slipped into the servants’ corridors and out of the palace. No one paid him the slightest attention. He entered an alleyway and left the palace livery behind. He donned the garments of a simple worker. He drew no attention as he made his way to the harbor and found a ship headed for Saloyna. He paid for passage and boarded.
* * *
As he stood at the rail watching Murtaghan, the capital of his homeland, disappear over the horizon, he felt a tug of pain against his heart. He hadn’t lost all capacity to feel as he’d believed. A strong cord connected his heart to his daughter’s, and until he was far enough away from Korthlundia for the cord to snap, his heart would beat in agony. He shrugged off the pain as irrelevant and looked at his hands. Bits of dried blood clung under his fingernails. Removing the blood beneath the nails had always been the most difficult part. He’d once owned a small brush specifically for that purpose. He didn’t remember what had happened to it. He’d need to procure another. He’d lost his way, thought he could reform and be again the stable groom he once was. Now he knew better. He was a killer, and there were men, like Argblutal, who needed killing. He’d find them and rid the world of them.
The Ghost had held many names in his life. The first time he’d sailed away from his homeland, he’d been known by the name his mother had given him. Ahearn had been confined in a small, dark hold, believing he was about to die. He’d been eighteen—a mere child—and completely unprepared for the life he’d found in Saloyna. Fifteen years later he’d returned to Korthlundia as Darhour—so scarred and tainted that no one who’d known Ahearn would have recognized him. Even The Ghost had trouble believing he’d lived the lives of both the simple stable groom and the notorious assassin. Now both men were dead, and The Ghost was nothing but an empty shell.
Holy Sulis, Mother of us all, could Ahearn have taken a path that didn’t leave a pile of corpses in his wake? Or was the choice taken from him when a naïve young queen chose him as her lover?
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